Although writing book reviews is not going to get anyone an academic job or promotion, book reviews provide a service to the community and can be worth the effort, particularly if you want to read a book closely or you have something to say about it. When I was an undergrad at the University of Turin, I had the good fortune of attending a “book review seminar” with the great Carlo Augusto Viano, who spent an inordinate amount of time helping me edit and improve my very first book review. I didn’t have a chance to thank him enough at the time but I can pay it forward (a little bit) with these pointers. If anyone out there also received help from Viano with their book review, I’d love to hear it in the comments.
Book reviews have three main functions:
1. Contextualize the book
A good book review should tell the reader how the book fits in the intellectual landscape in a way that the reader cannot easily find out on their own. Explain what problem is being solved, how previous authors have attempted to solve it, what debate the book contributes to. Provide enough context that you can make clear what, if anything, is genuinely novel and valuable about the book.
2. Present the main ideaas
Describe the main theses and arguments in the book. You can be selective and focus on what you are most interested in, but do mention briefly that there is more in the book than what you have space to discuss. Be charitable and clear. This does not have to be a chapter-by-chapter summary; the author has probably already done that in their own introduction to the book. It’s better if you summarize the contents of the book in your own way, in the service of the point(s) you want to make in your review.
3. Provide the reviewer’s perspective
Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the book. If a book has no strengths, you should probably not review it because it deserves to be ignored rather than reviewed. So point out the strengths but feel free to spend most of your time on what you disagree with and why.